To help bring more awareness to the milk donor program, I was asked by BC Women’s Milk Bank a few months ago to share why I decided to become a milk donor.
There is actually a real need for more lactating women to donate milk to the most vulnerable babies currently recovering in NICU. I thought it would be beneficial to share my unexpected postpartum experience and my personal reason for becoming a donor. Maybe you or someone you know might be in a position to donate as well.
The Road to Breastfeeding
While I was pregnant, like most moms, I had no plans to be an exclusive pumper. Exclusive pumping, also known as “eping” in breastfeeding circles, is when a baby is fed breast milk from a bottle instead of nursed directly from the breast. To be honest, being a first time mom, I was very preoccupied with the thought of going through labor that I didn’t give breastfeeding much thought. That was until my prenatal class instructor brought up a very good point, we shouldn’t spend so much time worrying about the birth as it is just one day in our lives when, in comparison, breast feeding our child could last for much longer. She had a good point and I felt like she was talking directly to me.
I started seriously researching more about breastfeeding and the best breast pumps to buy. I even attended local La Leche meetings too. They are free and are run by local breast feeding moms who want to help support other women in the community with their breastfeeding issues. There, I was able to get my questions answered, receive some invaluable information and connect with other new moms. I definitely recommend these meetings to any new or soon-to-be moms.
Combined with what I had learned in my prenatal classes and the meetings, there was no reason for me to believe I wouldn’t be able to breast feed my own baby. But due to my postpartum complications, it turns out breast feeding in the conventional sense was not in the plans for me and my baby.
A Debilitating Postpartum Headache
My daughter, Bibi’s, birth was 30-hours long with some scary moments and complications that makes another story unto itself. For the purpose of this post, I’ll start telling this story from postpartum in the hospital where I experienced the worst headache of my life. It was debilitating. I felt like I was going to vomit as soon as I got up from the bed. Dare I say, the headache I experienced was as painful as the labor.
I told the nurse about my pains and they assured me that it was probably due to a lack of sleep for me as a new mom. To take away the pain, they gave me me two powerful little pills – painkillers called hydromorphone. Wishing the pain to go away as quickly as possible, I took them without second guessing what she said. To my pleasant surprise, they quickly helped the pain go away and I was able to tend to my newborn baby again. I enjoyed many hours holding and admiring Bibi’s tiny little features while continuing to take the hydromoprhone which did a great job at taking the pain away.
We spent two nights in the hospital and on the third day we were both examined by a round of doctors who gave the green light for us to be discharged. I was so happy and looked forward to taking a long hot shower and sleeping in my own bed again.
Once we got home, we enjoyed showing Bibi her crib and her new home. After that I took the longed-for shower and nap with plans to nurse and cuddle her some more after. When I woke up, the debilitating headache came back and I had to immediately get back into bed. Once I laid down, I found almost instant relief but as soon as I stood up again, I felt excruciating pain. I spent the next 24 hours in bed lying down. Fortunately, during that time, my husband and family were there to help me take care of the baby. However, there was one thing that they couldn’t help me with, which was feeding her.
I was actually having a difficult time feeding Bibi with my headache. We couldn’t establish a good latch because I couldn’t sit up to hold and feed her properly. I tried to feed her lying down but it was not an ideal feeding position for the both of us. She would nurse for a short while and then quickly turn her head away, crying uncontrollably. I remember during this time her cries were very frantic and high pitched. Nothing could soothe her and I didn’t know why. Later on, I would learn that she was actually just hungry – very hungry.
With her pitiful cries, my postpartum pains from labor complications and my intense headache, the first day at home was rough. I was in so much pain, I felt like I needed hydromorphone again but more so, deep down I knew I needed to go back to the hospital. I called the admittance office, told them about my intense headache and asked to be re-admitted but they told me that it wasn’t possible. It was up to my family doctor to prescribe more pain medication for me.
It was snowing and I felt so terrible that I didn’t have the stamina to make a visit to my doctors office. I stayed in bed one more day hoping that my pain would wear off. Bibi and I went through another night of her violent wailing and my feeble attempts at nursing her upright while fighting through my own pain. It was horrible.
The next day the community nurse who was in charge of my case called me and I told her about the baby’s violent screaming and my headache. She asked me to meet her at her office with Bibi. They normally do house calls which I would have greatly benefited from but since it was snowing, she requested that we meet her at her office instead.
It took everything I had to get out of bed and bring Bibi outside. I couldn’t fully stand upright and only felt less pain when my head was bowed. In a hunched back position, hubby and I brought our daughter to her office. Stepping outside, the sun’s bright light bouncing off the blanket of white snow on the ground further exacerbated my headache.
At the office, Bibi was weighed by the nurse who told us she had lost 16% of her birth weight (10% being acceptable). She advised us to go to Children’s Emergency right away. Totally alarmed, we went there straight away.
Children’s Emergency and NICU
At emergency, we spent the next 9 hours being assessed by various nurses and doctors. It was a long process that involved waiting in an assessment room and having medical personnel come in every half hour or so to take her vitals. I was in so much pain that I ended up curling up on the cot with my daughter who was the actual patient.
The nurses and doctors who came to check her saw how much pain I was in and asked if I was okay. Teary eyed, I told them that I was in so much pain and I didn’t know what to do since I wanted to be at Children’s Emergency to get my daughter help but at the same time, how do I get help for myself?
They explained to me that it was NOT normal to be suffering this much postpartum and I needed to let them take good care of my daughter while I sought help myself. I told them I had already tried asking to be re-admitted into Women’s hospital again with no avail. The pediatrician was so nice and told me she called the admitting desk to inform them that I’d be coming in. Maybe this time they would take me more seriously. She also arranged to have me pushed over in a wheelchair, which helped greatly (Women’s Hospital was next to Children’s). By then I was in tears and dry-heaving from the pain because I had been out of bed all day.
Once there, they had an anesthesiologist meet with me after a short wait. I was told that I actually had a CFS (cerebrospinal fluid) leak from the epidural they gave me during labor. This happens when the needle accidentally passes through the outer membrane that envelopes the spinal cord and creates a tiny hole or tear that allows the cerebrospinal fluid to leak out. This causes the CSF to become low and the brain sags inside the skull, causing headaches that worsen when the patient is in an upright position, either sitting or standing up (source: Cedars Sinai). Hearing her tell me that, everything made so much sense! No wonder why I had such debilitating pain.
They arranged for me to have an operation called a blood patch to fix the problem that very night. It only took about 4 hours from when I met the anesthesiologist to when the procedure was completed. I was so relieved that in such a short amount of time, my headache was able to completely disappear. As a result, the operation made my back numb and it hurt to walk but anything was better than that skull-crushing headache!
I felt exhausted and I couldn’t walk properly but there was something about being a new mom that gave me so much adrenaline to keep going – to protect this sweet new life I had brought into the world. I hobbled out of the Women’s Hospital operating room and slowly limped my way back to the Children’s Hospital where I joined my daughter who was eventually admitted to the NICU. Bibi needed monitoring because she developed jaundice and had lost too much weight due to my inability to feed her.
I felt so terrible seeing Bibi’s little body hooked up onto machines that were monitoring her vitals the whole time. Every time an alarm went off, my heart would skip while one of the many kind nurses would come in and check on her. Happily, she recovered quickly after simply being fed formula.
All of this happened on day 3 and 4 of Bibi’s life while my milk was coming in. Because I didn’t have her with me and I had to undergo the aforementioned operation, I was totally engorged. I still wasn’t able to hold Bibi in a better position while nursing because my back was still hurting from the procedure. It was a real learning curve to learn how to exclusively pump milk for my baby instead of nursing her directly like I had always imagined I would. I expressed my milk with the hospital’s hospital-grade breast pump but to my dismay, there wasn’t much.
Lacation Consultants at the Women’s Hospital
During our initial stay at the hospital postpartum, we weren’t able to see a lactation consultant but in the NICU, the doctors were very sympathetic to our situation and arranged for a consultant to come see me the very next day.
The lactation consultant was a sweet woman whom I will never forget. I was recovering on the bed when she came into my room, sat by my bedside and told me to keep lying down and rest. She said that she had read my file before coming in and that she couldn’t believe what Bibi and I had been through in the last few days. She was so upset for me and I could really feel her empathy.
More importantly, the kind consultant helped me realize that it wasn’t my fault for not being able to nurse Bibi properly. We already had poor latch issues and because of the pain I was experiencing, it caused my milk production to be less than stellar. She explained that when the body produces too much adrenaline, that can negatively affect milk supply. She spoke to me in such a caring and compassionate manner that I started crying, finally feeling like I was heard.
Up until that point, I felt that everyone expected me to care and provide for my new baby but no one, including myself, realized was that I was in no position to do so. I can only imagine how many other new moms out there were facing the same expectations and feeling like they just couldn’t measure up even though it’s no fault of their own.
After the procedure to fix my spinal leak, hubby realized I was actually physically worse than everyone had initially thought. He apologized for telling me to just “push through the pain” in order to feed our daughter properly. I appreciated that.
After speaking with the consultant, I finally felt like I could stop blaming myself for not being able to provide for Bibi in those early days. The consultant told me to keep resting for now and keep pumping whenever I could in order to build up my supply. It was more important that I recover before I tried to latch the baby again.
We stayed a few more nights in the hospital and I had the opportunity to use the hospital’s high quality pump to express milk. I still wasn’t making much milk then – maybe 20-40 ml (0.5 – 1.5 oz) per session. It was hardly enough for my growing baby so we supplemented with formula.
I received another visit from a second consultant and it turned out to be another unforgettable interaction. She was just as caring and supportive while we practiced latching the baby. However, I still couldn’t hold her properly so the latch wasn’t ideal. The consultant reassured me that it would get better in time. I needed to work on building up my milk supply in the meantime. When I decide to try nursing the baby again, it would help to have more free-flowing milk to make it easier for her to access without getting frustrated.
To build up my supply, the consultant taught me to keep pumping every 2-3 hours to mimic the natural patterns of a nursing baby. I tried pumping often but I guess I wasn’t able to do it as much as she suggested since I was trying to get enough sleep in order for me to fully recover and take care of Bibi.
I think at that time, I was only getting 3 hours of broken sleep every 24 hours. I wasn’t producing enough milk to feed my baby and I felt so disheartened. I must have looked at the consultant with the most helpless teary red eyes. Sensing my deep disappointment in myself, she took the time to encourage me to keep working on it. With a gentle voice she said, “Keep pumping and you’ll be surprised. You will see your supply go from tens of milliliters to several hundred a day.” I tried to blink back my tears and nodded without really believing what she said could come true.
Following a Pumping Schedule
Returning home, I tried my best to pump as often as humanly possible. It wasn’t easy with all my postpartum complications and just a general lack of time which all new moms can attest to. On top of the usual newborn baby stuff, I also needed to find extra time to pump (usually half hour sessions) and then clean up the pump parts to dry in time for the next session. Considering a newborn baby needs to eat every 2-3 hours and I had to pump and clean on top of feeding her, I didn’t get much sleep at all. Fortunately, my husband had paternity leave so he would feed her at night while I pumped. In the daytime, my mom would be over to do the same. I am so thankful for all their help.
Increasing My Milk Supply
I was never able to pump more than 7 times each day. In the beginning I’d only have the energy to pump 4 times a day, supplementing with formula. But as I gained my strength back 20 days postpartum, I persisted with recommended 6-7 half hour sessions each day. To help increase my supply, my mom also made me a drink from soaking dates and ginkgo in hot water, which I drank daily. On top of that, I’d keep hydrated by drinking at least one cup of water when I started pumping and one more when I finished. At 3 weeks postpartum I pumped around 400-500 ml/day (13 – 16 oz.), which was around 60 ml (2 oz.) per session.
I remember at 4 weeks, I pumped more than 100 ml (3.3 oz.) in a session for the first time. I was so excited, it was more than Bibi drank per feeding. However, I wasn’t able to produce that much every session. But by week 6, I finally pumped a little more milk than what Bibi drank for the entire day so I started freezing it for the future. It wasn’t a lot, maybe a bag per day but after another week, my production really started to ramp up and I was able to produce well over a liter a day. Each day, I would freeze several bags of milk that by week 9, I already had over 6 litres (200 oz.) of frozen milk in the freezer. I couldn’t believe it myself. Every time I reached into the freezer to put my milk away and saw a little stockpile, I would remember what the kind consultant said to me.
“Keep pumping and you’ll be surprised. You will see your supply go from tens of milliliters to several hundred a day.”
The Journey Continues
Of all the countless kind and caring medical professionals I encountered during and after Bibi’s birth, both of the lactation consultants at BC Women’s were the most unforgettable. Their empathy and encouragement made a huge impact on me as a new mom. They gave me the skills to increase my milk supply and encouraged Bibi and I to keep working on breastfeeding while I continued to pump in the meantime. I now have a freezer full of milk and I continue to save more each day, some of it for Bibi and some it for donation to the Milk Bank for other babies who need it.
Breast milk has special antibodies that are highly beneficial to the most vulnerable of babies in NICU – a place I often thought about after Bibi was discharged. I felt so safe at the hospital knowing she was well taken care of and we had everything we needed there. Now, I really want to give back where I could because I’m so appreciative of the resources that were available to us when we needed it the most. I sincerely hope our milk donation will help other mommies and babies who were in the same position as Bibi and I just a few short months ago. We are now healthy and so happy as a family. Bibi is thriving so much and has started to crawl and pull herself up to a standing position. It was a bit of a journey to get to this point but I realized sometimes you just might end up finding meaning and purpose when circumstances lead you down a road less traveled.
With much love.
Breast milk has beneficial properties that help babies fight off viruses and bacteria in addition to helping them grow. Very young babies in NICU benefit especially from this nourishing gift and new milk donors are still needed everyday.
I found the application process to become a donor very easy and user-friendly for new moms. If you’re already breastfeeding or pumping milk for your baby, it’s not hard to express and store extra milk for donation. Personally, I added some more pumping time to my routine in order to save more for donation. In fact, I saw my supply increase even more due to my body’s recognition that it needed to produce more milk. I urge you to look into it.
How to Become a Milk Donor:
1. Screen – 2 interviews are done over the phone, perfect for busy moms.
2. Blood test at your local lab.
3. Collect and drop off milk – Shipping at your own cost can be accommodated too.
Learn more at BC Women’s Milk Bank
We didn’t get discharged from the hospital until Day 10 of Bibi’s life because I had further post-delivery complications which I might talk about at a later date. At around 3-months postpartum Bibi and I fully recovered. What helped us was when I found wonderful resources to sleep train Bibi to sleep 12 hours continuously through the night. When she slept more, I slept more and that really helped me recover from my postpartum complication. Read how we sleep-trained Bibi to sleep 12 hours continuously without feeding.
I now pump around 1500 ml/day. A third of that is saved for Bibi’s future use and for donation to the Milk Bank.
My mom made an insightful observation of my unexpected postpartum experience. She thought I was unnecessarily tormented by my inability to feed my daughter. All the slogans citing that, “Breast is best”, puts a lot of pressure on new moms. Although I agree that scientific research has proven that breast milk has many nutritional benefits for babies, circumstances don’t always allow for this arrangement. Even if it can be arranged with a lot of difficulty, it doesn’t mean that every baby (and their mom) benefits from it. There may be advantages for using formula, one of that is allowing more time for mom to take care of herself after a difficult delivery. As long as baby is being fed, that is the most important part. Even Bibi relied on formula in her early days – it saved her life.
When I had a chance to see my OB again for my 6-week postpartum visit, she told me that what we had to go through was unfortunate and gave me some advice, “Sometimes you really have to stand your ground and push harder to advocate for yourself and your own care.” I really wished I had pushed harder and sooner to save the stress that my daughter had to go through. It’s something I know I need to do in the future for myself and for my loved ones.